Director: David Leitch
With the insanely entertaining John Wick in 2015 and now Atomic Blonde, director David Leitch appears to be a part of the vanguard of a new boom in action films, and he found his best subject in the scintillating Charlize Theron.
Its Charlize Theron’s world and we’re just lucky enough to be spectators, as she deftly plays Lorraine Broughton, the steely MI6 agent hardened by the physical and mental battering she’s taken on the job. And as easy as it would have been for a performer like Theron to show up and coast on raw talent and Leitch’s adoring camera, she brings a nuance of vulnerability and subtle tinges of doubt to the coiled and aloof Lorraine. However, Leitch seems more concerned with capturing the flavor of a spy thriller plot, using a convoluted spy-thriller framework to support his piece de resistance; the jaw-dropping action scenes. Sure, there’s a lot of moving parts to make it resemble a clever yarn of espionage, and Lorraine performs a triple lindy of spy double (triple?) crosses, but connecting all the dots to this story will be the subject of youtube videos for the next three decades (The Ending of Atomic Blonde Explained) (Proof that Toby Jones did his own stunts in Atomic Blonde).
But, let’s face it, we’re not buying the ticket for Atomic Blonde to complain about a messy plot, our butts are in the seats for Theron, and she doesn’t disappoint. It’s true; the only thing that could have made this experience better would be if all the plot ingredients had added up to a tightly wound spy thriller. But, worrying about it seems absurd while watching Theron light every frame she walks into on fire and the brilliance of Lietch’s carefully choreographed action scenes.
In these action scenes Leitch and cinematographer Jonathan Sela are careful not to get too close and muddle any of the finely choreographed violence, instead they create wide frames for the scenes to breathe, moving the camera fluidly with each body in motion, and all of it is sold on Theron’s performance. It’s one of those rare marriages of undeniable screen charisma of an actor and a focused vision of a director, no more apparent than in the 10 minute long stairway sequence, in which Theron she fights her way through some of the most brutally physical stunts ever seen. This allows Leitch to let the scenes flow seamlessly like a violent dance while Theron fills in the narrative gaps with her performance, hiding Lorraine’s fear and doubt behind gritted teeth and an obsessive need to prevail. There is a struggle within Lorraine that would have been lost in the muddy swamp of a plot, but it’s played out beautifully in these scenes.
The slick, perhaps overly stylish, look and the musical selections may be a little on-the-nose and border on vapid, but the earnestness of the action and performances makes it much easier to digest and even enjoy as surface aesthetics. A favorite moment in particular is a scene where Lorraine thoroughly emasculates a handful of police officers while George Michael’s Father Figure plays, again, it might be a little blunt, but it’s hard to not love it while watching Theron operate.
We also get the bonus of seeing the ever so charming James McAvoy play a guy having way too much fun being the foil to Lorraine, David Percival. Like Lorraine, his arc looks like an Etch a Sketch maze but the character thrives in McAvoy’s revelry. Sofia Boutella is a breath of fresh air in a film yearning for levity with her energetic performance as French spy and Lorraine love interest, Delphine Lasalle, and there are the always sturdy and aware performances of John Goodman and action star Toby Jones.